For much of history it’s been a truism that if you wanted to achieve fame as a Scot, you had to leave Scotland to do it. Gavin Hamilton was the greatest of Scottish history painters, and he did it in Rome. The creator of works such as Agrippina Landing at Brindisium with the Ashes of Germanicus (above) was born 1723 in Lanarkshire, to an illustrious family that traced back to James Hamilton, 1st Lord Hamilton (1415 – 1479), son-in-law of James II of Scotland. The town of Hamilton in South Lanarkshire is named after the Lords Hamilton, and Gavin, a distant relative, had a close working relationship with many of the family.
He attended Glasgow University while the Irish moral philosopher Francis Hutcheson was teaching there; Hutcheson believed that people are endowed with distinct senses of reason, of moral perception, and of aesthetic perception, which work together to help us understand and engage with the world. Hamilton decided on a career as a painter and studied in Rome from around 1746 at the studio of the late Baroque painter Agostino Masucci. One of his earliest paintings was of William Hamilton of Bangour, painted around 1748 with a strongly classical influence, inspired by Roman medals and relief carvings.
In 1751 he returned to Britain where he mainly painted portraits, including his first masterpiece, of his distant relative Elizabeth Gunning. This is a supreme example of highly stylised and formalised portraiture. Gunning is draped in rich fabrics with elaborate folds, and beside her a dog rears up to emphasise the countryside setting: but this is a fantastic idyll of the British upper classes enjoying their lands, not an actual scene of country life.
Hamilton moved back to Rome in 1756, and remained there for the rest of his life, socialising with expatriates or visitors including painter Allan Ramsay, neoclassical architect Robert Adam, and the scholar Robert Wood. There he established himself as part of a tradition of neoclassical art that runs from Nicolas Poussin to Jacques-Louis David. Like Poussin, Hamilton sought to present the past but to do it in a scientific, rational way, based on archaeology and historical inquiry. The classical world was very popular in 18th century in the UK, Europe, and North America, beginning with Latin and Greek translations by Dryden, Pope and others. The Roman Republic in particular was seen as a guide to modern rational Enlightenment living, as Europe emerged from tradition and feudalism into a more democratic world where wealth, merit, and commercial endeavour were the highest values.
His friendship with the historian Robert Wood showed Hamilton’s effort to link the old and the new. Wood explored the Middle East looking for sites mentioned in Homer’s epic poetry. He wanted to prove Homer was a real person whose art was rooted in lived experience not second-hand traditions. In 1758 Hamilton painted a record of Wood’s exploration in James Dawkins and Robert Wood Discovering the Ruins of Palmyra, intended as a memorial for the recently dead antiquarian Dawkins. It shows the European men in classical togas, surrounded by exotic sights: a black servant, turbans, a camel, and palm trees. These are people struggling with horses and heat, not residents of dusty libraries.
Agrippina Landing at Brindisium with the Ashes of Germanicus (1765-72) is an essay in deep emotion expressed in a refined, reserved, classical form. Germanicus Julius Caesar (15 BC-AD 19) was the adopted son of the Roman emperor Tiberius, and also brother of Claudius, father of Caligula and grandfather of Nero. After a short but glittering military career he was poisoned in Antioch, Asia Minor, in 19 AD, aged just 33, and his wife Agrippina brought his ashes back to Rome.
Germanicus became a symbol of the perfect Roman man, an exemplar of military excellence thanks to his successful campaigns in Germany, and he was celebrated as a man of great virtue surrounded by perfidy, cut down at a young age; after his purity came the horrors of the later empire. Hamilton contrasts the stillness of the dutiful wife Agrippina (echoing another grieving woman, the Virgin Mary) with the forcefulness of the soldier on the left, who is possibly a reference to Germanicus’s recapture of the Roman eagles lost at Teutoburg. Only one woman at the far left gives herself up to emotion.
The subject was as popular in Hamilton’s day as in classical Rome. It had been painted by Poussin, whose The Death of Germanicus (1627) is another wonderfully elegant study of dignity and stoicism in death. Poussin, another exile in Rome, was the greatest master at restraining powerful emotion within formal rigour and historical research; the leading Poussin expert in Britain was gay communist spy Anthony Blunt. Hamilton would follow Poussin’s interest in careful historical inquiry in his own works, such as his attempt to create an accurate image of Mary, Queen of Scots.
Germanicus’s fame was long-lived: the scene was also painted and etched by Scottish artist Alexander Runciman; the etching, with its composition influenced by Roman monuments, shows the elegantly seated Agrippina holding an urn while behind her a woman weeps and a child clings to her. Even Turner treated the subject, in his Ancient Rome; Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus (1839); Turner’s work is historically inaccurate since Agrippina landed at Brindisi in eastern Italy; rather than praising imperial virtues, Turner’s work was one of a series of pessimistic paintings on the folly of empire.
The world of the artist was very different in Hamilton’s time. This was before the romantic myth of the lone genius and outcast. Being an artist was a career with an established commercial training system in academies and studios. Making money was acceptable, whether taking commissions from rich travellers or producing works with an eye to the engraving market. Today there is a widespread belief that emotion should be expressed through derangement, through distortion and grotesquerie, whether in Van Gogh or Tracey Emin; artists, writers, and filmmakers who seek to describe and characterise emotion within a formal framework, rather than through expressionistic gestures, are rather frowned upon and seen as insincere or cold. Even the idea, common to Renaissance and Enlightenment neo-classicism, that we should look back to classical tradition as a model for modern living today seems strange.
But then as now many travellers came to Italy, and one of the favourite occupations of painters in Rome was to provide keepsakes for them. Perhaps Hamilton’s best such work is his portrait of another distant relative, Douglas Hamilton, 8th Duke of Hamilton and 5th Duke of Brandon (1775-7), painted while the dashing young man was on his Grand Tour visiting the celebrated sights of the Mediterranean. With adoring entourage of guide, son, and dog, the Scottish aristocrat stands amid classical architecture. He poses in cool, elegant fashion, not looking at the viewer; his yellow trousers and waistcoat and red jacket are prominent. It is a supremely stylish portrait of a very dashing young man.
Another money-making scheme was to create a series of paintings of classical scenes inspired by the Iliad. These could be turned into prints and sold to collectors. Andromache Mourning the Death of Hector (c. 1759) was the first of 6 such works, and is now lost. Achilles Lamenting the Death of Patroclus (c. 1760-63) is another splendid scene of human passion: Hamilton is again naturalistic in his treatment of the Trojan war, focusing on people not gods, just as Robert Wood had done when he investigated Homer the geographer not the mythologist.
Hamilton made a good living from his art. He was able to buy the version of Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks that is now in the National Gallery, London: buying artworks like this was a sign of success, but also a bit vulgar compared to inheriting them. Unlike Germanicus, he died an old man in Rome in 1798. Since then he has suffered the curse of the exile: his work says nothing to the people of Scotland, and despite his talent he is hardly the greatest artist ever to work in Rome. The year he died was the year of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads, the birth of Romanticism in Britain and the death bell for neoclassicism.
Gavin Hamilton, Agrippina Landing at Brindisium with the Ashes of Germanicus, 1765-72.
Oil on canvas, 182 x 256 cm.